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for Matt Tomlanovich

May 12, 2016



by Donald Breckenridge


About Donald Breckenridge

Donald Breckenridge is a novelist and the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, and managing editor of Red Dust Books. He is currently working on a new novel based on Sophocles' three Theban plays. His writing has recently appeared in Vestiges, Numéro Cinq, BOMB and is forthcoming in Black Sun Lit.

A door sketched on a piece of scrap paper with a black roller tip pen. The ceramic coffee cup decorated with birds accompanied by the insistent din of house sparrows just outside the open windows. Orange leaves scattered over the wet sidewalk then blew into the street. Garbage cans and black bags lined the curb. A storm began to move through the region yesterday afternoon and it rained all night. A white bowl filled with a dozen dried Turkish figs. The rain tapered off while the coffee was brewing on the stove. Muffled bass thumping beneath the tinted windows of a passing black SUV. A police funeral in Queens for a Guyanese officer killed in the line of duty, highlights from the 3rd GOP debate, the perfunctory review of a recently published autobiography of a punk singer turned television actress. The garbage men gradually made their way down the block in bright green fluorescent vests while pitching bags and dumping the contents of cans into the back of their truck.

A narrow path through the slush led past a line of refrigerators and a marbleized waist-high snowdrift. A few students who attended a performing arts conservatory founded a theater company that they incubated in a storefront gallery on Bedford Avenue then relocated to a loft on Berry Street before signing a two-year lease on a converted paint factory beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. The US led invasion of Kuwait was less than a week away. As the group moved around the neighborhood they pulled in more actors, a few artists, as well as an actual director. Low clouds hid the afternoon sun. The stage on the first floor of the South 6th Street space was long yet narrow while the theater could comfortably hold about fifty people. The J train sent pale sparks cascading off the tracks as it rumbled onto the bridge. The audience was frequently seated on the stage and plays were preformed directly in front of them on the house floor. A blue delivery truck ran the red light. There was a dimly lit lounge behind the theater. A handful of empty crack vials were embedded in the ice pooled beneath the fire hydrant. There was a gallery on the second floor along with the bathroom, and a small living space with a gas stove, a table laden with books surrounded by scavenged chairs in various states of disrepair—two-steps down an even smaller room held a narrow bed and a barred window that offered a blurred postcard-sized view of the traffic moving over the bridge.

A blue sedan came to a slow stop then parallel parked in front of the house. Occasionally a black Nissan Sentra parks in front of the house, usually in the early afternoon, and a young black couple make out in the backseat for nearly an hour before driving away. They must climb over the front seats in order to get in the back at least I’ve never seen them get out of the car to get into the backseat. Usually I don’t even notice their car until it drives away, although sometimes I’m sitting on the stoop smoking a cigarette while staring into space and a flash of skin or patches of moisture forming on the rear windows draws my attention to the car. Maybe they work together someplace nearby and have to keep these lunch hour trysts a secret. Maybe their families have forbidden them from seeing each other and the middle of this nondescript tree-lined residential block is the safest yet shortest distance away from where they live. Or maybe she recently married someone else and he is the one man from her past that she couldn’t leave behind. They probably leave the engine idling so they can play the radio without draining the battery. I never knew just how difficult it was not to look straight ahead, and inadvertently into their car, while smoking a cigarette on the stoop or that witnessing displays of public affection would leave me feeling so bemused.

After a near miss Haemon hired a taxi to get them out of Oaxaca then Antigone convinced the driver—with her halting Spanish and a conspicuous stack of pesos—to shuttle them over the Sierra Madres. It was the summer that Argentina hosted and won the World Cup, the summer that Margaret Gardiner of South Africa was crowned Miss Universe in Acapulco, the same summer that Antigone and Haemon quietly reaffirmed their suicide pact in the backseat of a dark green Volkswagen beetle as it gradually ascended a cloud forest. The driver was rewarded for his efforts after locating the remote fishing village south of Puerto Angel that Antigone had read about weeks earlier in a tattered magazine that she’d discovered on a park bench. Convinced they would soon be cornered Haemon and Antigone had no intention of surviving a week on the beach much less witnessing the torrential rains that flooded the region in July. The time for hesitation might have passed but that imminent threat never materialized so it wasn’t the right time for them to follow through with their pact. Despite the suspicious array of shifting off-season narratives they spun for the hotel staff and a few sun-dazed expats, compelling mainly for their sheer implausibility, Haemon and Antigone were incredibly generous and exceedingly polite. They were inseparable in public and nearly always held hands—especially after her pregnancy began to show. In turn the maid never let on about the loaded .38 she inadvertently discovered hidden between the mattress and box spring in their spacious room overlooking the Pacific.

The actor portraying Creon paced the floor while delivering his decree regarding the severe punishment that would be inflicted on any individual or faction within Thebes who was caught attempting to bury Polynices. A three-night run of Antigone was scheduled to begin in six days. The actor was tall, in his early twenties, and had sandy blonde hair. The director was heavyset with a neatly trimmed beard; he lived in a loft on Grand Street, worked as a labor mediator for the department of education, and would be turning thirty-one the following week. Although the actor was a replacement for the original Creon, who quit in a fit of pique five days ago, he’d nearly memorized all of his lines, and this seemingly supernatural feat distracted both of them from the fact that the theater they were rehearsing in was freezing cold.

An empty Jamaica bound Z Train raced past the elevated station on the center track. A police car with its siren going navigated the intersection beneath the elevated platform then sped down Broadway. An airliner silently followed a familiar flight path to LaGuardia beneath the cloudless blue sky. Shimmering headlights on the approaching Manhattan bound J train. Someone nearby was twirling a ring of keys. The train rumbled into the station then came to a slow screeching stop. The doors opened and the crowds waiting on the platform boarded the train. I entered the car and sat beside a young black woman with a tall Afro and bright pink fingernails who was watching a movie playing on the tablet in her lap. The conductor announced the next station as the doors closed, opened again, and then closed.

The diner was a block away from the office. She had the Greek salad without anchovies. “So my mother called me last night.” He ordered a cheeseburger deluxe. “Oh?” They were seated in the booth furthest away from the door. “Her grandfather died.” “I’m sorry.” Snow fell on the traffic slowly moving along the avenue. “Were they close?” “Not really, and he died a month ago.” The clear plastic cups of ice water left wet rings on the blue-green Formica. “My mother was clearing out his house over the weekend.” She had finished her rice pudding. “And the people she hired to help her found this trunk in the attic that was filled with all these dresses and gowns, and wigs, and Mickey Mouse ears and gloves, a Bambi costume, and albums with all of these photographs of him dressed up as like, Snow White, as well as Cinderella, and Goofy.” He’d eaten most of his coconut cake. “Polaroids?” “Yeah,” she nodded, “like a half a dozen albums.”

“I think we will always feel out of place,” Antigone looked up from the empty coffee cup resting in its chipped saucer and asked, “But what do you like the most about being here?” “All of the time that we have together,” Haemon leaned forward, “the child we are bringing into this paradise,” then placed his elbows on the table, “and the idea that each day we are alive we are more alive than we were the day before.” Every morning Antigone and Haemon awoke to the singing blackbirds that nested in a nearby grove of palm trees and each night they were lulled to sleep by the faint sound of waves breaking on the shore. “Do you really think we’re safe here?” Antigone asked. Haemon nodded, “So long as we keep out of sight,” then added, “Although I’ll always be seen as the spoiled son of a tyrant.” The tranquil blue sea shimmered beneath a cloudless sky. In consolation she quietly offered, “And my father was cursed.” Haemon shook his head before saying, “You were always there for him.” Antigone sighed, “I miss Ismene.” Haemon leaned back in the chair, “I’m sure your sister is okay.” An open fishing boat appeared then gradually motored into the blue distance. “Maybe she is being punished because we ran away?” “Ismene is very resourceful.” “She doesn’t even know that we are still alive.” Haemon watched a line of pelicans glide over the swells closing in on the shore before suggesting, “Why don’t you write Ismene a letter and we will figure out a way to get it to her.”

“You’ve got to portray Creon as he sees himself, and that is as a just and noble leader with an incredible responsibility to shoulder. If you portray him as human the audience will sympathize with him, and I want people to walk out of here wondering how he will survive … what will happen to Creon after his son and wife kill themselves because of his actions … because of his arrogance … and not that the divine dispensation handed down by the gods was exactly what he deserved … I know his suicide at the end of the play is implied but we don’t see it, and I want the audience to want him to survive. How will he live with the consequences of his actions? Remember at the beginning of the play the people of Thebes—and you shouldn’t be pacing through your opening decree—regard him as a just and legitimate ruler who is responsible for the moral integrity of the state.”

The brunette behind the wheel of the battered sedan with a bullet-pocked windscreen drives off a dirt road and onto a desolate beach at sunrise. The car plows halfway up the side of a dune before the rear wheels sink into the sand. The melodramatic soundtrack leaking from the black woman’s earbuds fades into the sound of car tires spinning uselessly in the sand. After pounding on the steering wheel with her clenched fists she gets out of the car then removes the lifeless body of a bloodied young man from the trunk. They share a faint Mediterranean resemblance and she struggles while hauling him onto the roof of the car. After arranging the body—face up with his arms resting at his sides—she retrieved a metal gas can from the back seat then climbs onto the hood of the car and douses his body with all of the gas in the can. The muted intonation of a rapid prayer and her face was wet with tears as she tossed a flaming matchbook onto his bloody chest. Slowly walking backwards along the dune, and never looking away from the burning car, now a fiery silhouette before the rising sun.

Tiresias was a blind homeless alcoholic who hung around the central square in present day Thebes. He claimed to have once been an important prophet although he never killed any copulating serpents, or underwent any divine gender transformations, or spent seven years as a famous courtesan. This grizzled Tiresias resembled a wild-haired Jackson Pollock. If Pollock was blind, had a long flowing grey beard, a head full of grey hair that he wore in a crown of dreadlocks and had somehow lived well past ninety while gradually drinking himself to death on a park bench. The legendary Tiresias had been blinded by the goddess Hera for humiliating her in front of her husband Zeus after being summoned by them to help resolve their argument over whether men or women enjoyed greater pleasure during sex, to which that Tiresias had famously quipped, “If the parts of love-pleasure be counted as ten, thrice three go to women, one only to men.” After suffering Hera’s spiteful wrath Zeus compensated him with inner vision and extended his life by seven generations during which he reluctantly dammed Oedipus and later cautioned Creon to little or no avail. Whereas the Tiresias who just materialized above the paperback copy of Herodotus’ Histories you were reading while waiting for the bus to take you back to Athens... was blinded by... and here you got the impression the reasons greatly varied on the time of day, the arm he was pressing, and most importantly, the amount of alcohol already churning through his veins. On this mild yet cloudless Thursday afternoon Tiresias the inebriated claimed that he had simply woke up one morning after a series of strangely beautiful dreams involving human-sized flying cats and a tribe of Pygmies living in trees to discover he could no longer see the world as it had always been, “The bookshelf and table, a window overlooking the fig tree in the courtyard, the bed and my young lovers’ beautiful face as she slept beside me were all gone.” He claimed that soon afterwards key events about to occur in the lives of the people he encountered on a daily basis were projected in crystal clear visions. He then stated that world events were foretold to him in birdsong. Later he learned to read the irrevocable moirai sentence on every infant. And his uncanny ability to predict fortunes from the warm livers of freshly sacrificed sheep brought him incredible wealth. For decades Tiresias amassed unimaginable influence but it came at an extraordinary price as he wearily confessed, “In exchange for my mortal sight I was blessed with something exceptional,” but now the visions were infrequent, “and I’ve chosen to drink it away,” the birdsongs distorted, “in the end my powers,” parents are better off at the mercy of their ignorance, “proved to be much more of a curse than a blessing,” the carrion fouling his hands was simply nauseating, “I found myself poisoned by the collective greed of the human race,” and rendered incomprehensible from the copious amounts of wine he plied himself with, “the burden of humanities willful ignorance has proven to be too much for me.”

The counterman called out for a tuna melt on rye then rang up the mechanic standing before the cash register with a ten-dollar bill in his right hand. “Was her grandmother in any of the pictures?” The cars in the parking lot across the street were covered in a layer of snow. “In some of the albums she is his Minnie Mouse,” Removing a cigarette, “although my mother remembers them being really uptight,” from the pack in her purse, “mid-western republican,” placing it between her lips, “silent majority types,” leaning forward and making eye contact with the man across from her. “Is her grandmother…” Striking a match that he held to the end of the cigarette, “Is your great grandmother still alive?” He waved it out then dropped it in the black plastic ashtray. “She died of cancer,” exhaling smoke, “before I was born,” and leaned back before adding, “Although he went blind a few years after she died.”

Every night I pray that you are well but I cannot tell you where we are or how we got here because if this letter were to fall into the wrong hands it would incriminate all of the brave people we entrusted with our lives and jeopardize our peaceful exile in this magical place that we now refer to as paradise. Just know that Haemon and I have cheated death more than once while putting oceans between Thebes and ourselves. Haemon isn’t dealing anymore and we’ve both been clean for nearly a year. I know that you’ve had your differences but if you could see Haemon as he is now it would please you to discover a brave, even-tempered, honest and compassionate man who is nothing like his hypocrite father. I have never needed any man to define me and I have never had the slightest desire to completely lose myself in anyone but while Haemon and I are together I know that we can handle anything. Please know that we are in good health and that we are expecting a child. I love you very much and I am sorry that you are not here with us. I hope this letter brings you great comfort, and also that someday you will experience the same love and happiness that I now know.

With much love,

“Creon personifies integrity and Polynices is a traitor,” the director crossed his arms over his chest, “there are no two ways about that,” as he continued, “the absolute ruthlessness of Creon’s decree—to let Polynices’ body remain exposed to the elements after being killed on the battlefield by his brother—to let him rot on the battlefield and to be picked apart by wild animals while Eteocles is given a hero’s funeral ... and to punish anyone—including his son’s lover—who tries to bury him with death ... Creon considers that to be the ultimate deterrent to all the enemies of Thebes, internal or otherwise, it is a deterrent, and also in his mind, it is a fitting punishment for Polynices, whose betrayal of Thebes was also unimaginable.”

The scene with the immolated young man blazing away atop the battered sedan fades out just before the J train pulls into Broadway/Myrtle. The black woman powers off her tablet, removes her earbuds and slides the tablet into her oversized tan suede purse. She stands and steps toward the doors in a knee length khaki raincoat and tall dark blue rubber rain boots. She reaches out with her right hand and grips the overhead bar while the train comes to a complete stop. When the doors open she exits the car and remains visible in the windows while walking along with the crowd gradually making their way toward the stairs.

“To see someone’s future you have to look into their heart and nearly everyone has nothing good inside of them anymore.” Maybe you weren’t buying the bent metal cane and imitation Ray Bans routine, “But I always enjoyed helping good people,” or maybe you wanted to kick the tires out of respect for the local color, “good people such as yourself,” so when you politely interrupted his rambling soliloquy to inquire if he was truly blind this destitute Tiresias dutifully presented you with a weathered card from an actual medical examiner in Athens stating that one Anthony Antoniadis, “that is my Christian name,” waving the detail away as you would a few gnats circling over an open three liter jug of locally grown wine, “Good people such as yourself,” was legally blind in six languages, “who have come to Thebes to learn more about our mythology,” and while returning that laminated scrap of provenance to his bulging fanny pack he added, “should always share with those who are less fortunate than themselves.”

“He outlived his second wife as well,” crushing her cigarette in the ashtray, “by a decade.” The clock on the wall behind the counter indicated that it was time for them to settle up and return to the office. “Are there photographs—” “His second wife was a seamstress.” She interjected with a nod. Their check appeared on the table. “Did they have any children?” She shook her head. “I told my mother to give all of his costumes to charity.” He glanced at the total, “So one day you’re going to inherit pictures of your blind,” removed his wallet, “Walt Disney loving great-grandfather,” then dropped a ten on the check. “I never even knew him.” She placed two fives on top of the ten. “What’s your dress size?” She lowered her eyes and lied, “I’m an eight,” before quietly adding, “apparently he was a fourteen.”

The honeymooning Japanese couple politely declined to mail the letter once they returned home, the Australian surfer also said no, as did the leftists from Michigan who were passing through on their way to Nicaragua in a stolen VW camper van. Eventually an easily exasperated Antigone rolled up the letter and placed it in an empty Tequila bottle that she corked up and then convinced Haemon to throw it as far as he could into the sea.

The director nodded, “These are subtle shifts,” before adding, “you’ve got to let that arrogance slowly grow out of control otherwise Creon will have no emotional depth. And there should be nothing mannered or self-conscious about your delivery—this is Sophocles and not Brecht—so don’t intellectualize your performance or you’ll completely undermine the role. It is easy to side with Antigone—the audience will love her for her passion and admire her resolve and determination—she is such a heroic figure. Even her suicide is courageous ... it is a calculated act of revenge ... but remember that Creon is also right ... and his sense of duty is tied to his fate. Creon’s sense of duty, and yes, his arrogance is his ultimate undoing. His crime is against the gods for putting himself and Thebes before them, and he is justly punished. So when you say, “Our country is our safety,” you are putting the state ahead of the gods. It is also an opening, a shared line, because Thebes is a democracy, and a true democracy is one that belongs to everyone.”

I was talking on the phone yesterday afternoon while giving the door its second dimension. Below the door I’d written Actual then added Color permutations to expand on chance associations and scrawled Memory/Present beneath that. It was too warm and humid for the end of October. In the dream I’d eaten an entire bowl of dried Turkish figs, they were plump and sweet, and I ate all of them with great pleasure while standing at the kitchen counter, one after another, without removing the hard tip on their stems. I woke up after eating the last fig in the bowl and still had the taste of them in my mouth while climbing the stairs. After feeding the cats I gave Oscar his kidney medicine. Johannah and I planted a fig tree in the backyard during our first spring in the house. It was a beautiful tree that grew to about eight feet although it didn’t bear very much fruit and the squirrels usually got to what little there was before it fully ripened. The tree didn’t survive the last winter when the yard was frozen solid and covered with snow from the end of December until the middle of March. After cutting the tree down I used the wood to grill lamb as it imparts a delicate smoky aroma of figs on the meat.